Monday, December 19, 2011

Daniel Green, "Reconstructing Afghanistan" At The MMC

Daniel Green, Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke recently at the Marines Memorial Club on "Reconstructing Afghanistan."  This was another lecture co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council, where I used to hold a membership until I got too busy with all of my Web blogging action.  I attended and took good notes.  My observations are in italics.

Mr. Green talked about his experiences on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, the stomping grounds for Hamid Karzai's early supporters.  His brief description of the topography tells us how hard it is to build infrastructure in parts of A-stan.  The population lives along green belts near rivers in a mostly desert province.  Check out pics online of terraced farms in parts of A-stan.  Then try to imagine the futility of building millions of dollars worth of roads and sewer systems to service an agricultural village whose annual economic productivity can probably be measured in the low five figures. 

Mr. Green mentioned that Karzai's status as head of the Popalzai tribe gave him credibility as a Durrani leader, but didn't go further into A-stan's history.  Here's the significance.  The Durrani Empire was probably Afghanistan's golden age, when it was expansive enough to hold both Persia and India at bay.  A legitimate Durrani lineage helps explain Karzai's staying power.  It also explains Mr. Green's comment that the Oruzgan governor was not necessarily into good governance but remained a Karzai ally.  Their politics aren't like ours, folks, and their standards for good governance are not what we would demand in the Anglo-West. 

Oruzgan province was mostly safe when Mr. Green's PRT arrived in 2005 but only seven months later the Taliban had stepped up activities with more sophisticated attacks.  More foreign fighters showed up to join the party.  The PRT had to shut down its good governance projects due to the violence.  The U.S. didn't understand the importance of village-level engagement and spent little developmental aid on small villages due to its orientation on conventional nation-state governance.  Maybe we should check out the book and movie versions of The Ugly American before we do any more nation-building in countries that don't function as nations. 

One thing Mr. Green wanted to emphasize is that the U.S. drawdown through 2014 is not at all synonymous with a complete departure.  The U.S. is staying in Afghanistan, in some form, for a very long time.  The Afghans interpret White House pronouncements as a departure, so being the survivors they are they will hedge their strategic bets.  Keep that in mind the next time you hear Hamid Karzai making friendly moves toward Iran or India.  He's being more pro-Afghanistan than anti-American and his moves play well with his home audience.  Remember also that the Taliban are primarily a Pashtun movement, and his own Pashtun lineage matters.  Karzai's public comments that may rile the U.S. will give him crucial credibility at the negotiating table if he is to ever successfully disarm the Taliban and re-orient them toward nonviolence.  We miss the nuances of this in the Western media.

America's bad strategic habits in foreign intervention are all to familiar to Mr. Green.  He noted how we tend to underestimate problems and later throw money and technology at them because that's what we understand.  He likes the AfPak Hands program and thinks it needs special management; it can be an antidote to the short-term thinking paradigm the U.S. uses to solve long-term problems.  I for one would love to become an AfPak Hand.  There's no way we can understand that region without a cadre of people dedicated to its permanent study.

The mention of village stability operations caught my attention in the lecture.  This is an effort by NATO/ISAF conventional forces to position themselves inside villages and build tribal-based defense forces around them.  This immediately reminded me of Army Special Forces Major Jim Gant's concept of Tribal Engagement Teams.  If you've never heard of it, read about it in the milblogosphere.  I had the chance to ask Mr. Green afterwards if village stability ops were based on Maj. Gant's ideas; he said the approach was heavily informed by Maj. Gant's work and is spreading rapidly.  Wow, we actually learned something and applied it.  America is number one!

Mr. Green obliquely mentioned that U.S. policy on Pakistan needs review because we are partially subsidizing covert wars against ourselves by supporting Pakistan.  The unspoken limitation of any substantive policy review is the dependence of U.S. forces on a ground line of communications (i.e., a logistics corridor) from the port of Karachi.  Any force footprint larger than roughly a division will need resupply from some direction other than the northern rail corridor, which is inefficient because changes in rail gauges through the 'Stans slow down railcar movement.  Reviewing our support for Pakistan means reducing our force structure so Pakistani logistics doesn't hold us hostage.  This is part of the rationale behind announcements of drawdowns until 2014.  I hear your frustration, Mr. Green. 

He framed a choice comment about fighting with allies very diplomatically.  NATO countries seem to prefer the political benefit of participation in ISAF over actual fighting.  Many NATO forces have immature COIN approaches, learned little from Iraq, and restrict their fighting with too many caveats.  Winston Churchill had a choice quote about fighting with allies, but he assumed allies would actually do some real fighting.  There's a running joke that ISAF stands for "I Saw America Fight."

Here's an observation on the interagency effort that's worth repeating.  Mr. Green was disappointed that USAID had devolved from a competent organization in the 1960s to having too few field agents, little COIN understanding, and a limited focus on contract monitoring.  This dovetailed into his comment about NGOs lacking accountability, staying in the capital too much, and undermining Afghan sovereignty.  This is the logical result of outsourcing government functions.  Governance is the core of an aid effort, and legitimacy comes from government-to-government contact.  Perhaps the U.S. Army should detail some civil affairs troops to USAID, because synching the CMOC doesn't seem to be working if our institutions are that weak.

BTW, there may be a better way to do opium mitigation.  Mr. Green said Marine forces are working this in Helmand province.  The U.S. should give those opium farmers some biodiesel reactors so they can turn poppies into fuel.  Granted, that's only a concept.  It won't be viable unless farmers could sell their biodiesel for more than what they'd make for a comparable opium crop. 

A couple more observations are worth repeating.  Al Qaeda sticks out like a sore thumb in A-stan and may fill the vacuum if the U.S. leaves completely.  The Arab Spring encourages reform without reliance upon Al Qaeda's extremism.  I wonder if Mr. Green knows of the Muslim Brotherhood's extensive network in the Middle East; there may not be much reform with them in charge after elections are held.  Embedding U.S. personnel 24/7 with Afghan forces is effective.  Local police are less educated and professional than the Afghan army.  Having an enduring U.S. ground presence is essential to avoid throwing away what we've gained from our dislodgement of the Taliban and Al Qaeda; ground forces develop intelligence on local personalities and safe havens that enable strike packages against high value targets.  That last comment brings out what a military force does in COIN and also reveals the military's limits.  It takes a lot of nation-building effort to get sufficient intel for even a limited strike on one bad guy's hideout.  The nation-building renders his hideout untenable by making local villages secure and prosperous.  That is why the U.S. will be in Afghanistan, in some fashion, for a long time.  Oh, yeah, there's a lot of very valuable minerals there too. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"China - Threat Or Challenge?" Lecture By Roger Dong

The War Memorial Veterans Building in San Francisco is getting put to good use.  Last week I attended a lecture on modern China by my colleague Roger Dong (Lt. Col., U.S. Air Force, Ret.), a veteran China analyst.  The thesis in his talk "China - Threat Or Challenge?" (his answer: Yes!) is that China's assertive strategy demands a response from the U.S. and its allies.  Much of what follows is a synopsis of Roger's major points, along with my own observations as noted in italics

China's modernization miracle started with Deng Xiaoping, the only member of Chairman Mao Zedong's inner circle who had studied abroad and knew how to run a modern state.  His agricultural reforms got the state out of farming, and - voila! - starvation stopped.  Deng wasn't all sweetness and light, of course.  He is widely believed to have given the order to have Tiananmen Square cleared of protesters in 1989

The economic miracle continued in China after that dust-up.  China's annual GDP growth has averaged 9.9% for 32 years.  The biggest extant threat to this continued growth is the possibility of renewed recession in the U.S. and Europe, which together account for 40% of China's export market.  China's pegging of the renminbi to the U.S. dollar is a national imperative because it keeps China's export prices competitive.  Memories of the Revolution drive a pro-growth policy as an antidote to unrest.  I've noted recently that, given a noticeable slowdown in exports, China has made more public noises about switching from an export-driven growth policy to a consumption-driven policy.  I think it will be very interesting to see how severely this change in national economic planning will test China's social cohesion in the midst of other growth-related problems (environmental damage, bad bank loans hidden in municipal entities, and other problems the Chinese haven't mentioned to the West).

Roger noted that China takes a deliberate approach to training its next generation of national leaders.  The Chinese Communist Party grooms Politburo members and senior diplomats for years, rotating them through positions so they are always oriented to their designated area of expertise.  For example, the Chinese foreign ministry sends its U.S. experts on tours of duty to the U.S. and then links them with U.S. Embassy activities in Beijing upon their return.  I've also heard anecdotes from other China-watchers that officers who separate from the Chinese military are placed directly into industries that China considers strategically important so they can be groomed as future business leaders.  If true, this approach ensures business activity stays closely aligned with national security strategy.  The five-year economic plans overlap changes in senior political leadership to provide continuity.  China's internal security budget exceeds its national defense budget, in a sign of the leadership's deep insecurity about the potential for unrest.  That surprised me.  I recall reading idle speculation around the time of the Hainan plane incident in 2001 that the U.S. would be well served by a strategy that leverages internal dissent and regional/ethnic differences in China.  Can China break up under sufficient pressure, like the former Soviet Union? I now think that can be a very realistic strategy in light of Roger's insights. 

Let's move from basic strategy to recent events.  Roger said that the Asian financial collapse of the late 1990s gave China a stronger position relative to its neighbors.  China used this new strength to build goodwill with Asian nations whom had traditionally feared its ambitions.  This effort was apparently for naught.  China's recent naval assertiveness has destroyed this goodwill and revived old fears of its intentions.  Asian nations once again look to the U.S. for security assurances.  This is a window of opportunity that the U.S. cannot afford to waste.  The U.S. had begun a gradual shift in overseas force deployments and basing from Europe to Asia in the early days of President George W. Bush's administration.  This realignment was interrupted by the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan.  When those wars end, the U.S. realignment to Asia must resume. 

Roger has noted some encouraging signs that the U.S. is taking its Asia security policy very seriously.  President Obama announced at the Nov. 2011 ASEAN meeting that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a U.S. national interest, in a clear message to China.  The intended basing of 2500 U.S. Marines in Australia is an equally clear message that the U.S. is committed to the security of the Western Pacific.  The U.S.'s strong relationship with Singapore continues thanks to the city-state's generous provision for U.S. aircraft carrier berthing and participation in U.S. military exercises.  U.S. fast-attack submarines in the Pacific and logistics stocks on Guam are further signs of the importance the U.S. places on meeting China's strength in Asia. 

Roger threw our audience some more tidbits.  Foreign powers' historic conquests in China drive Beijing's paranoia about building its military capability.  China's ICBMs mainly target the U.S.; I wonder what combination of the remainder target Russia and/or India.  Note that the Politburo members are not military veterans.  That reminds me of some articles I've recently read about China's lack of an equivalent to the U.S. National Security Council.  No Chinese NSC means no interagency synchronization, which makes it harder for Beijing's civilian leaders to control their military. 

The U.S.-China crisis over the Taiwan Strait in 1996 forced the PLA Navy to confront the U.S. Navy's carrier superiority.  The PLA Navy has matured since then and has developed a tri-dimensional doctrine of air/surface/submarine operations.  Now China's procurement efforts are catching up to doctrine.  China's purchase of a Russian aircraft carrier is a source of national pride but probably a strategic bluff.  It has no on-board catapult system that can launch the Shenyang J-15, China's primary naval fighter aircraftChinese doctrine may be mature, but its implementation via hardware has a ways to go. 

The PLA Navy's minor efforts seem to be on track.  The SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missile is probably intended for use against U.S. aircraft carriers.  China's Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine is a more immediate threat than China's nascent nuclear submarine force.  One wonders how a Chinese sub was able to surface in the middle of a U.S. carrier battle group.  Can Chinese subs actively track and outmaneuver a U.S. carrier battle group?  Or did the sub simply loiter along an expected route for the carrier group and guess an opportune time for a lucky surface maneuver?  This is a relevant area for U.S. intelligence analysts to explore, because it will reveal gaps in Chinese technical capabilities that demand innovation and audacity from fleet commanders. 

Roger noted the recent claim by a group of Georgetown University researchers that China has built 3000 miles of tunnels, probably for military use.  He also noted that mitigating the tunnels themselves is less important than neutralizing the systems for power, water, and life support that make the tunnels viable mobility corridors.  I think we could learn a lot from the tunnel mitigation efforts the South Korean military employs along the DMZ. 

Roger wrapped up with some recent facts, noting that China plans to remove silt from behind the Three Gorges Dam with deepwater dredges to keep it operating; that Russia and China's natural enmity will limit their cooperation; that Chinese corruption is mainly a local government problem and that China's national policy of attracting biotech R&D has been successful; and that Mongolia was a key location for listening posts during the Cold War.  Hmm, that last observation caught my eye.  I did a web search for "Mongolia listening post" and got a bunch of interesting hits.  That country may have the ability to play the U.S., Russia, and China off against each other for money, technology, and other goodies. 

The Q&A was fun.  I asked Roger whether he thought senior Chinese leaders were still ideological Communists devoted to equalizing everyone's living standards.  Roger noted that China tolerates many home-grown billionaires and millionaires, so the existence of economic inequality posits that pursuing ideology for its own sake is not nearly as important as economic growth and material well-being.  Roger's lecture gave me more food for thought about whether my pet theory of a new Cold War in Asia between China and India can be supported with open-source observations.  I will continue to look for indicators of China-India rivalry, along with analysis of how the U.S. responds.  Good job Roger Dong!  You got me thinking, which my friends tell me can be dangerous. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

PACOM And AFRICOM Came To San Francisco In Fall 2011

This town is a magnet for lectures from big shots.  In the past two months I've attended lectures from Admiral Robert. F Willard, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and General Carter Ham, Commander of U.S. Africa Command.  Admiral Willard spoke in September on the security opportunities and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region, and Gen. Ham gave a rundown in November of AFRICOM's activities.  What follows is my comparison of the two commands' approaches to regional security.
The geographic regions covered by each command are simply ginormous, with PACOM covering 36 nations and AFRICOM covering 54 nations (including the world's newest nation, South Sudan).  Both commands implement security cooperation programs with America's regional partners, and by comparing my notes it's obvious which country is the cause for America's concern: China.  Managing the U.S.'s relationship with China is the PACOM commander's biggest stated challenge; countering China's economic influence in Africa is an emerging challenge for AFRICOM.  It's interesting to note that both commanders emphasized China as a competitor and potential partner, not an adversary.  It is probably at least a decade too early to consider China an adversary and even then the Middle Kingdom will have a way to go to prove itself a worthy adversary.  Gen. Ham mentioned that the African countries he's visited use their Chinese-made military hardware in static displays because it no longer operates.

PACOM's vast expanses of ocean now include space and cyber domains as global centers of gravity the U.S. must protect.  This expands the U.S. Navy's role as guarantor of freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific since WWII.  Gen. Ham did not mention space or cyber domains in his talk.  African nations may be unable to afford space programs and anti-satellite weapons, but IMHO we should not underestimate their ability for cyber-enabled asymmetric warfare.  It does not take much capital for an African hacker to disrupt a network with DOS attacks. 

Adm. Willard mentioned China's rising blue water navy.  It is an open secret that China sees aircraft carriers (an 80-year old weapon system) as a source of national pride.  What is not widely reported is that China still views its navy as an adjunct of the People's Liberation Army and not a peer member of a joint team.  That nuance is key to understanding how Chinese doctrine must evolve if their navy is to become a power projection arm that can threaten neighbors.  A navy that can show the flag in the Indian Ocean and conduct counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden is a minimally-capable blue-water force.  Evolution into amphibious operations and joint integration will be keys to determining whether Taiwan's independence is at risk.  One more note on Taiwan: It is worth wondering whether the U.S.'s declining arms sales to Taiwan are a sign that China's creditor position as a holder of U.S. sovereign debt gives it leverage over U.S. posture in the Pacific.  Just sayin'. 

Speaking of counter-piracy, AFRICOM does that too.  It also has a role to play in Libya.  Gen. Ham alluded to AFRICOM's initial role in helping plan the allied operation in Libya but then noted NATO's lead; now Libya is back in AFRICOM's hands for post-conflict stabilization.  The need for the transition of C2 in Libya should be made clear.  AFRICOM is configured and staffed primarily for security cooperation, not warfighting.  It is not clear whether AFRICOM's combined air operations center was mature enough to manage an air campaign over a denied theater (i.e., generating a daily air tasking order, tracking BDA, etc.).  The fact sheet for 17th Air Force, AFRICOM's air component, doesn't mention any strike assets.  Perhaps someone in AFRICOM could set the record straight on which command owned which phase of Operation Odyssey Dawn / Operation Unified Protector.  Perhaps someone in NATO could set the record straight on whether NATO's air operations center could truly handle the daily sortie generation rate it was designed to manage. 

Adm. Willard gave some support to my pet theory that there is potential for a new Cold War between China and India.  China isn't just beefing up its armed forces for national pride or to contest the U.S. in the South China Sea.  India is very concerned about the potential Chinese threat to its Arunachal Pradesh region bordering Tibet.  China has never abandoned its claims to what it calls South Tibet. China's leaders know that any slowdown in its economic growth will test the country's social cohesion.  It is easy to envision scenarios under which resurgent Chinese nationalism can tempt Beijing into aggressive adventures.  Adm. Willard mentioned, at various points, India's frustration with U.S. arms sales to Pakistan, India's military-to-military contacts with the U.S., and our two countries' commercial alignments.  New Delhi should not worry so much.  The U.S. flirtation with Pakistan has an expiration date.  A further U.S. alignment with India as a balance-of-power counterweight to China would be a natural evolution. 

Gen. Ham and Adm. Willard both face rogue threats in their regions.  North Korea's erratic leadership has been a thorn in the Pacific's side for sixty years.  Korean culture emphasizes ancestor worship and honoring a family patriarch's legacy, so of course the next generation of the ruling Kim dynasty will continue panhandling via the Six-Party Talks to obtain some donation scheme that is even more generous than the Agreed Framework.  The DPRK raises blackmail and hyperbole to an art form.  The immature stateless threats of Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have yet to develop that level of skill in Africa.  That's the thing with non-state actors.  They don't have the cash or connections for nuclear weapons so they have to think outside the box.  Gen. Ham noted that our African partners like getting U.S. advice in logistics, intelligence, communications, and air/ground integration techniques that help fight these threats.  They will need that help if they are to assure world markets that their natural resources are secure and available for development. 

Africa has enormous potential in oil, agriculture, and minerals, as Gen. Ham said.  I predict that China and the U.S. will largely frame their "cooperative" relationship as a question of who gets first access to the untapped wealth of Africa.  Here's the bottom line.  China needs Africa's resources to support its drive for dominance in Asia.  The U.S., India, and other nations know this but aren't ready to publicly counter China's drive as stated policy.  PACOM and AFRICOM have every reason to watch China's moves and help smaller nations in their regions become stronger.  The outline of a new era in global power is emerging.  That's why I attend these lectures.  You are now free to go read something else until I have more great things to say. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Analysis Of Gen. James N. Mattis' Shultz Lecture

In August I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Gen. James N. Mattis (USMC), commander of U.S. Central Command, address the Marines Memorial Club as part of its George P. Shultz Lecture Series.  You can watch a video recording of his lecture online. If it seems like waiting over a month to post a review is a long time, bear with me.  I was waiting for another geopolitical shoe to drop, and that shoe recently landed. 

Gen. Mattis' remarks were quite substantial.  He noted that Iraq lacked an Arab Spring uprising.  I wonder whether that is because the Muslim Brotherhood has no Iraqi chapter that can instigate one or if Iraqis are just so sick of unrest that they can't muster any enthusiasm for further social disruption.  I wanted to hear more details about Iranian Quds force units operating in Iraq and whether they've penetrated Muqtada al-Sadr's organization.  The General mentioned they're operating in Syria too and are the only thing keeping the Assad regime in power.  I think Gen. Mattis' assessment of Syria gives Iran too much credit; the Assad family has plenty of support among Syria's business class, it has successfully isolated or co-opted many of the regime's opponents, and defections from the Syrian military have not significantly degraded its combat power. 

As an aside, Iran's ability to manipulate events in the Arab world will always be circumscribed by its Shiite and Persian identity, no matter how many rockets it ships to Hezbollah or how many special operators it can send to Iraq and Syria.  Did Iran send Quds operators to Bahrain during its Arab Spring unrest?  It has claimed that country as historically Iranian but couldn't influence the outcome there thanks to the GCC's deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force.  Score that as a Saudi victory over Iran in their never-ending contest for leadership of the Islamic world.  Anyway, back to the lecture. 

Gen. Mattis' summary of progress in Afghanistan is spot-on.  IMHO the American military has finally internalized the successful COIN approaches that stabilized Central America in the 1980s.  The military effort in Afghanistan is now facilitating Taliban defections provided those defectors renounce violence and support the Afghan government.  Requiring them to break ties with Al Qaeda is probably unnecessary IMHO.  The U.S. has mostly defeated Al Qaeda and is now threatened by other terrorist networks that regenerate in Pakistan (more on that below). 

The General was distinctly proud of CENTCOM's military-to-military contacts in support of diplomacy in the region.  Hey folks, that's DIME at work, and the military is very willing to play ball with the other elements of national power.  The Egyptian military seems eager to hold elections and turn over power, but IMHO we all may regret the lack of formal organization in Egyptian politics.  The Muslim Brotherhood is the most well-organized political actor in Egypt and will easily play a leading role in an elected government.  Islamic thinkers are fond of using the "democracy as train station" metaphor, meaning democracy is merely a way station enabling Islamists who can seize power and enact Sharia law.  Egypt under Sharia would pose a major threat to Israel's security, but neither I nor Gen. Mattis are capable of speculating on whether that outcome is probable. 

Now, about that other shoe I mentioned up front.  Gen. Mattis' comments on Pakistan were very circumspect, mentioning that they fear India but have moved troops into their west to help the U.S.  The U.S. military is traditionally very restrained in public comments that may contradict the government's publicly stated diplomatic positions; once again, we do DIME quite well, thank you very much.  The U.S. government's diplomatic position on Pakistan is subtly shifting.  Adm. Michael Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently excoriated Pakistan's ISI for aiding and abetting the Haqqani network's recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.  It is not clear whether uniformed ISI officials exercised C2 over the attacking cell, but the support the ISI provides to Haqqani fighters has long been clear.  It was safe for Adm. Mullen to vent because he is about to leave government service, so he has no reason to fear career repercussions for his candor.  It is becoming safer for others in the military to pick up an anti-Pakistan line now that the rest of the U.S. government is turning against Pakistan's proxies.  The Treasury Department has recently sanctioned some Haqqani Network leaders.  I believe it is a matter of time before the rest of the network will be formally sanctioned.  That will make them fair game for the full range of U.S. offensive action, including covert disruption of their supporters. 

The U.S. is slowly but surely distancing itself from Pakistan due to that country's increasingly public tilt toward China as a benefactor and its profound lack of cooperation with U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.  The rupture will not be complete until the bulk of U.S. combat forces have departed Afghanistan because those forces need a line of communication through Pakistan for support. 

This Shultz Lecture Series is a big treat for geopolitical junkies and Marines Memorial Club members like yours truly. The Life Membership I paid for ten years ago has paid off many times over.  It was even cool to see George Shultz himself get up and about at the venue.  The guy just doesn't know how to slow down. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Analysis Of Eric Schmitt, "Inside The War On Terror"

Tonight I attended a lecture at the Marines Memorial Club by Eric Schmitt entitled "Inside The War On Terror," co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Northern California (as so many of these fine intellectual shin-digs are these days.  Mr. Schmitt was promoting his book Counterstrike: The Untold Story Of America's Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda.  Get ready for my thumbnail, stream-of-consciousness impressions.

His discussion of the tricks U.S. intelligence operatives used to root out terrorist activity show that innovation is alive and well within the U.S. government.  We can be proud that America's operatives are using open-source websites to attract jihadi followers who disclose their intentions, and that American linguists posing as jihadists on the same sites are intellectually agile enough to sow doubt and confusion among jihadis.  God bless the U.S.A.

Mr. Schmitt fielded some audience questions on the effectiveness of the homeland security apparatus erected since the 9/11 attacks.  It is obvious, at least to yours truly, that the vast amounts of national treasure wasted on security theater like airport X-rays are a victory for Osama Bin Laden's strategy of forcing us into bankruptcy out of fear.  Mr. Schmitt endorsed the British and Israeli approaches to resilience, where the government teaches the population to bounce back from expected attacks rather than cower in fear of the unknown.  The main difficulty I see with such an effort in America is that it would require unwinding much of the internal security bureaucracy we've built over a decade.  Try telling defense contractors that their subcontracted services are no longer required and watch that effort die on the vine as campaign contributions dry up. 

Mr. Schmitt noted his astonishment that some educational institutions offer degrees in "homeland security" as a serious academic discipline.  I didn't get the chance to explain this phenomenon after the lecture.  You see, online diploma mills have begun offering homeland security majors to veterans looking to spend their generous G.I. Bill educational benefits.  Their hook is that a degree in homeland security is a gateway to hiring by Uncle Sam's myriad alphabet soup agencies.  I've seen some anecdotal evidence that agencies are beginning to buy into this line too, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-funding cottage industry in education.  God bless the U.S.A.

Mr. Schmitt's most important revelation was that terrorism can be deterred, provided the U.S. can locate radical Islam's centers of gravity.  I was waiting for him to use the phrase "information operations" even though he described its principles accurately.  Arab notions of pride, honor, and manhood are viable targets for information operations.  He noted a few success stories from Iraq.  In one story, a terrorist fighter with a bounty on his head was hard to locate.  The U.S. lowered the bounty to make him seem like a nobody, wounding the guy's pride.  When he used a cell phone to complain about his lowered status to fellow jihadis, the U.S. located him and rolled him up.  Another story was the plight of a teenage Iraqi girl forced to wear a suicide vest.  When the U.S. caught her and turned her, she became a local media phenomenon for hosting some kind of Oprah-like call-in show that brought shame to would-be suicide bombers.  Suicide attacks then dropped dramatically before the U.S. 1st Armored Division vacated that particular sector of Iraq. 

IMHO, Mr. Schmitt and other observers show us that the U.S. can win the war on radical Islam by fighting smarter with information operations in the lead and kinetic efforts used sparingly in support.  If we had gone that route after the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, our combat footprint in each country would have been lighter, the wars would have been shorter, and our casualties much lower.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  God bless the U.S.A.

Analysis of Peter Tomsen, "Rethinking American Policy In Afghanistan"

I recently had the privilege of hearing a lecture at the World Affairs Council of Northern California from Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Afghanistan.  His lecture covered a wide swath of Afghan history and linked the U.S. counterinsurgency effort to the historical experiences of other empires that entered Afghanistan.  He did of course plug his book The Wars Of Afghanistan, but his lecture was far more than a summary of the book's chapters.

Mr. Tomsen argued that the U.S.'s entry into Afghanistan, like that of empires before, ignored the history of Afghanistan as a primarily tribal nation with a weak central government astride the "high ground" of Central Asia.  High ground is usually more valuable in a tactical sense than a strategic one, but the rationale for a foreign presence in Afghanistan is more nuanced.  The country was a waystation on the Silk Road trade routes between China and the West, and the Khyber Pass has long been the gateway for imperial invasions (first Indian, then British) into Central Asia. 

Afghanistan's only real period of regional hegemony, the Durrani Empire, existed in the interregnum between the decline of India's Mogul empire and the rise of Britain and Russia.  I found it interesting that Mr. Tomsen didn't mention that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President since the American invasion, is from a tribe that traces its lineage to the Durrani ruling family.  That is doubtless one of the sources for his legitimacy.   

At any rate, Mr. Tomsen dropped some interesting tidbits:
- U.S. outsourcing its Afghan policy to Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal was a big mistake. 
- All three major Taliban fronts in Afghanistan - the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction - are run by the Pakistani ISI
- Over 80% of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan are Pakistani!
- Iran meddles in Afghanistan; it seeks a broader regional role to counter potential encirclement by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
- China likes using Pakistan as a hedge against India and would not necessarily endorse any U.S. containment of Pakistani Islamic militancy, even if that risked stirring up Islamic separatists in its own "East Turkestan."

His take on Pakistan's perception of Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth in a potential fight against India is an invaluable insight for Americans trying to understand the "Af-Pak" equation.  Pakistan viewed India's diplomatic opening to Afghanistan with suspicion; this in turn stoked further Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan to thwart encirclement by India.  I have a pet thesis that compares Pakistan to Prussia in light of a major strategic similarity:  Both countries' militarized elites exported instability into their respective "greater abroads" to compensate for their lack of internal unity. 

My interpretation of Mr. Tomsen's arguments includes the following:
- The American emphasis on building strong national Afghan institutions like a central government and modern army has upset the historical equilibrium between Kabul and the countryside.
- Leaning hard on Pakistan to clean up its act and pursue terrorists is impossible as long as the primary line of communication (LOC) for NATO/ISAF's force runs through Karachi.  The so-called "northern corridor" through the 'stans is insufficient for handling military logistics due to the different rail gauges in use.  NATO and the U.S. thus have little alternative but to rely upon ground logistics delivered from the port of Karachi through Pakistan by road, with all the pilferage and bribery that entails. 
- Iran's dispatch of warships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean was more than a strategic breakout directed against Israel.  It could also have sent a message to Central Asian rivals. 
- Pakistan will keep playing the U.S. for a fool as long as it has China as a back-up hegemon.  The only thing that would radically change this equation in the U.S.'s favor would be a clear strategic tilt toward India.  A shift on that scale would really spook Beijing but would only be viable after a large U.S. drawdown eliminates the need for a LOC through Pakistan. 

Mr. Tomsen eventually argued for taking a long-term view in American foreign policy toward the region.  I'll offer my own proposed policy approach.  A stable Afghanistan would be open for business in both continental trade and local resource exploration.  It remains to be seen whether the U.S. estimates of trillion-dollar metal deposits are recoverable, as the aerial electromagnetic surveys used to derive those estimates are not nearly as accurate as multiple drill core samples from likely veins.  Stepping back from involvement in Kabul-centric nation-building will help restore Afghanistan's traditional equilibrium and give us more flexibility in dealing with the country's regional power-brokers (read "warlords" if you will, but that's how business gets done with the leading tribes).  If the U.S. wants to forestall Chinese dominance of Afghan mineral resources, we must make deals now with tribal and regional leaders who will be around regardless of who governs in Kabul. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Analysis of Joel Brinkley, "Israel And The Arab Spring"

I attended a lecture today at the Commonwealth Club of California by Joel Brinkley, Pulitzer Prize winner and experienced journalist.  His lecture "Israel And The Arab Spring" spent remarkably little time on the Arab Spring's causes and its effects on Israel.  Audience questions drove him to frame everything in terms of the stalled Middle East peace process, which showed the audience's pro-Palestinian bias and covered little new ground.

Mr. Brinkley's opening contention that Israel's foreign policy is the most self-destructive ever was a shocker, depending on your interpretation.  From the perspective of Bay Area idealists who wish Jews and Arabs could lock arms and sign "kumbayah" after forgetting 3000 or so years of tribal conflict, I suppose Israel's heavy-handed approach to cracking down on threats can appear self-destructive.  Mr. Brinkley argued that the Arab Spring's emphasis on nonviolent protest opens a window of opportunity for Israel to engage in dialogue with whomever in the Arab community is leading such protests.  If only life were so simple. 

The Arab Spring has little to do with the Anglo-West's projection of its own pluralistic and humanistic values onto Middle Easterners.  Underemployed Arab youths expressed their anger at largely secular regimes over high food prices and few job opportunities.  There will be precious little diplomatic opportunity for Israel to open dialogue with radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood should they come to power in Egypt.  Some in Israel's political establishment should know this already, as Hamas was created from the Muslim Brotherhood and has never wavered from its goal of destroying Israel.  Mr. Brinkley acknowledged Hamas' intransigence later in his lecture.  We could all use some deep background on the larger story of the Muslim Brotherhood's role in the Arab Spring.

Some of Mr. Brinkley's other observations point to further intractability in the Israeli vs. Palestinian conflict.  He noted that Palestinians evicted from their historic homes in Israel proper don't seem to want to return no matter they're offered.  Perhaps the victim mentality of living in occupied camps is so ingrained now that they can't imagine life outside of a ghetto.  He mentioned that Israel, for its part, won't surrender its fortifications on the Jordanian border to allow for a more secure Palestinian homeland.  This is actually pretty reasonable IMHO.  Israel has been repeatedly invaded by its Arab neighbors and its lack of strategic depth means it must position an early-warning tripwire as far forward as possible. 

The whole Israel/Palestine mess won't be resolved the way our tolerant Bay Area audience at the Commonwealth Club would like.  The ultimate solution is really rather simple and won't look anything like the results of a negotiation.  In all of human history, no two tribes or civilizations have ever been able to simultaneously occupy the same piece of real estate.  The stronger civilization always emerges victorious; it can absorb the weaker civilization demographically; it can forcibly relocate the weaker party; or it can pursue a strategy of annihilation a la Genghis Khan.  The stronger tribe at the moment is Israel, but that advantage may not last longer than another generation given the Palestinians' accelerating birthrate.  The water tables upon which both nations must subsist are declining.  That in itself will force a conflict over who gets to live where.  Mr. Brinkley dismissed the final audience question over demographics as no big deal; he may wish to revisit that stance in the years ahead. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Loose Southern Border Helps U.S. Business And Fed

Here's a stream of consciousness assessment of the U.S.'s southern border policy.  Fiascos like Operation Fast and Furious indicate that USG elements charged with border protection are incompetent at echelons above field ops.  Is the incompetence a result of normal bureaucratic imperatives, or a deliberate choice?  If it is "normal," that can be fixed by firing key agency leaders and replacing them with reformers.  If it is deliberate policy to leave the southern border mostly undefended, then geopolitics suggests explanations.

The U.S. business community relies on low-wage immigrant labor to keep costs down.  Agribusiness in particular depends on migrant labor.  Low-paid Mexican farm workers who remain in the U.S. illegally help ensure American crops are priced competitively in world markets.  The Federal Reserve also welcomes the presence of low-cost labor in the U.S. as it helps limit inflation.  Low wages prevent a wage-price spiral from emerging given the Fed's recent emphasis on quantitative easing. 

There is plenty of reason to believe that keeping the U.S. southern border loosely protected serves the interests of the U.S. business and financial elite.  That is why the USG tolerates the incursion of Mexican federal police across the border, no matter how brief

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pirate Attacks Demand Market Solutions

Those nasty, scurrilous, wretched pirates are up to no good again. Now they're going after anchored vessels in Southwest Asia, which is arguably when they're most vulnerable. Monsoon season may be something of a deterrent but piracy continues in other areas. The inability of JTF Horn of Africa to patrol everywhere means many vessel masters are on their own when defending against a pirate attack.

Solutions do exist. Passive defenses like technology for tracking and analysis are useful in deploying government naval fleets, but shipowners need something useful to counter an immediate physical threat. Dazzler lasers proved their worth in Iraq for U.S. forces that needed a non-lethal way to deter physical threats. More powerful lasers can potentially disable the fast boats pirates like to use but these tools will probably be too expensive for commercial shippers. Pirates who manage to get their boats in close to a target ship typically fire grappling hooks onto its deck and shimmy up the attached line. The best way to defeat this threat is to simply cut the line.

The combination of dazzler lasers and anti-grappling line training can go a long way towards deterring pirate attacks without requiring commercial ship crews to become combatants. These simple technologies are available on the free market. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Welcome To Third Eye OSINT

This post inaugurates something that has been in the works for a while.  I've always had an interest in international relations, military strategy, defense technology, security policy, intelligence collection, and related matters.  These interests don't always mesh with the financial focus of the Alfidi Capital blog but I am compelled to write about them anyway.  These topics warrant coverage in their own blog.  That is why I've launched Third Eye OSINT. 

The "third eye" image from my corporate logo is an age-old symbol of original insight and special knowledge.  The use of "OSINT," or open source intelligence, is common among national intelligence agencies that supplement their own clandestine collection with information found in public sources.  All of the information referenced here comes from unclassified, open sources to show that anyone with sufficient time and ability can perform intelligence analysis. 

Think of Third Eye OSINT as primarily a blog about geopolitics, with analysis of related topics.  It's very much a project of my for-profit business so all of the revenue from advertising you see here goes to me.  Launching it on Independence Day is perfect timing. 

Enjoy what you see here on Third Eye OSINT.